Leading Civil Rights Lawyer Driven by the Urge to Intervene
Public Affairs: 212-854-2650
New York, November 13, 2009 -- Throughout his career, civil rights attorney David Kairys ’68 has been driven by an urge to intervene.
Speaking at Columbia Law School on Nov. 11 about his latest book, Philadelphia Freedom: Memoir of a Civil Rights Lawyer, Kairys traced that urge to one of the first cases he tackled as a rookie public defender.
“The book starts when I left this building with a law degree but not the slightest idea of what it means to be a lawyer,” said Kairys, who founded the Human Rights Law Review at Columbia Law School and served as its first editor-in-chief.
Two weeks into the job, Kairys found himself struggling to master the intricacies of public defense work. “It’s like learning to swim by being thrown into the water,” he recalled. “Even clients seemed to know a lot more than I did.”
One day, Kairys overheard a colleague interview a client, a middle-aged black woman who had come seeking help for her husband, a man named James Jiles, who had been arrested the night before after the couple had an argument. Police discovered his fingerprints matched those of a convicted killer who escaped from a chain gang in Georgia 25 years earlier.
For more than two decades, he had been living a quiet life in Pennsylvania with his wife and four children, none of whom knew of his former identity. “I had this urge to intervene,” Kairys recalled. “It’s this urge to do something immediately to correct what I thought was just a terrible situation.”
In Kairys’eyes, Jiles had been fully rehabilitated since his escape. He was no longer a threat to society, and putting him in prison would harm his family more than it would exact justice. And, Kairys later discovered Jiles’ original trial appeared seriously flawed, with an all-white jury that passed judgment on a crime that was more likely self-defense than murder.
So he set off on a path to help the man he believed no longer deserved to serve his time. “The book is full of the strategies and how I tried to figure out what to do,” Kairys said. “I’m a bit of a pack rat, it turns out, and I didn’t know why until I decided to write a memoir.”
On June 25, 1969, Kairys, Jiles, and Jiles’ wife sat before the deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, with a mountain of evidence to prove Jiles was living an exemplary life. It worked. Gov. Raymond P. Shafer refused to extradite Jiles, who remained free until he died in 1991.
After three years as a public defender, Kairys founded his own firm, Kairys & Rudovsky, where his practice focused on constitutional law, race and sex discrimination and harassment, as well as government misconduct. He also found himself taking part in some of the country’s landmark civil rights cases.
Kairys won the leading race discrimination case against the FBI, successfully challenged unrepresentative juries around the country, stopped police sweeps of minority neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and represented celebrated pediatrician and political activist Dr. Benjamin Spock in a free speech case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kairys has been a law professor at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law since 1990, when he stopped practicing full-time. He co-authored the bestselling progressive critique of the law, The Politics of Law. Kairys has also written With Liberty and Justice for Some, as well as more than 35 articles and book chapters.
The self-described middle-class kid from Baltimore studied engineering before law school and never imagined he would be at the forefront of the civil rights movement. But throughout his epic legal battles, Kairys said he was never deterred. He was always thinking about what else could be done.
“Several of the things I do have that idea at their core,” Kairys said. “For me, it just spurred me to think creatively.”
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